Finding Adventure on New Zealand's North Island
New Zealand’s North Island
Some visit New Zealand for unparalleled landscapes and pristine beauty. Others visit for the miles of the often isolated stretches of shorelines or breathtaking mountain vistas. No matter what your reason for traveling to this beautiful country, to truly experience Kiwi culture you will have to immerse yourself in adrenaline pumping adventure.
Queenstown is touted as the Adventure Capital of the World, but there’s no need to plan wait to get to the South Island to experience some of the top adrenaline fueled adventures in the world. The North Island offers every level of extreme.
Before I visited New Zealand, I hadn’t experienced anything remotely exciting since riding the Walbash Cannonball at the now defunct Opryland Theme Park in my hometown of Nashville. But as I researched the country that’s land mass is comparable to the state of Colorado, I realized that to experience the real heartbeat of the country, I needed to get out of my comfort zone.
Thrill-seeking not on your bucket list? As the Kiwis say, no worries. The country offers levels of extreme even the faint of heart can find joy in the experience of adventure.
A zorb is giant, plastic orb with a smaller orb inside, designed to roll and bounce when pushed down a hill. Zorbing has its roots firmly on the North Island, the birthplace of the sport. Zorb Rotorua, located on the central North Island, offers a choice of adventure – Fast Lanes, Zig Zag, and The Drop. I chose the Zig-Zag and the wet option, so warm water inside the inner orb would allow me to slip and slide comfortably. After a quick stop in a heated changing room into a tank top and shorts, an old van transported me a short distance to the top of a hill before being escorted to a wooden corral that held orb in place. I dove headfirst into the inner orb. In this particular ball, even though it was made of clear plastic, I was unable to see outside. After assuring the guide I was ready, I felt a gentle push and I was soon plummeting down the hill. I lost all sense of direction and time as I slipped and slid my way down the hill, laughing at every bump and turn.
It was so much fun, that a few months later I would go back to the same course and climb into the ball with two more friends I met traveling. To increase the intensity we ate a huge slice of chocolate cake and the guys downed a shot of rum before careening down the hill. We didn’t end our day there, though, as a mere few miles away Rotorua’s Adventure Park has a luge, cable car and a giant bullet that provided an extra few does of adventure.
Just over two hours from Auckland, Waitomo is a unique community home to one of the world’s only glowworm caves. I craved a high level of adventure and a healthy dose of glowworms, so I chose the Lost World Tour which would take me down a 328-foot rappel onto the floor of the glowworm covered cave. It was high season, but in a stroke of luck, I was the only participant on the tour. After a short drive from the main office and safety speech, I put on my gear; a sturdy helmet with a headlamp and a reliable harness and several carabiners attached to the loops on the sides. The atmosphere was surreal as the mist hovered in the damp air. Slowly, I descended with my guide on a separate rope by my side. I took time as we lowered ourselves into the mystical cave where the otherworldly glowworms put on a spectacular light show as we drank warm coffee with crunchy biscuits under their dull glow.
Two hours south of Auckland, the Waitomo Caves provide all levels of adventure including a dry walking tour, blackwater rafting, and waterfall abseils.
Standing over Huka Falls is intimidating enough, with more than 220,000 liters of water per second rushing through the waterfall. Located just outside of the Taupo Town District, this natural phenomenon holds the honor of being New Zealand’s most visited natural attraction.
Huka Falls Jet Boat is the sole licensed operator with permission to take adventure seekers to the base of the falls, the prime way to experience this feat of nature. I had observed the boats from the Huka Falls viewing overlook, but as I walked toward the launch point I was nervous. The brochure states the boat, with a 200 horse powered jet engine, travel up to 80 kilometers an hour and tout the 360 degree turns.
I felt safe despite the Kiwi boat driver joking that it was his first day on the job, as their website touts the highest standard in the world requiring that drivers have 100 hours of training before they operate a commercial tour. The company hosts over 50,000 visitors a year. The half-hour ride took us along the Waikato River to the base of the Huka Falls, so close the spray made my hair frizzy. I screamed and my knuckles were white as I grasped onto whatever was within reach as we twisted and turned through the water, dangerously close to the rocky bank.
Cliffhanger - Extreme Cliff Swing
Situated just outside the resort town of Taupo, the swing is directly next to the Taupo Bungy just above the Waikato River. I’ll admit, I was too scared to try the tradition bungy, but I quickly found the cliff swing was no walk in the park. For this reason, I didn’t want to be alone. I met Jenna, a California native living in New Zealand, through some friends I met at a pub. I later learned that tandems go faster and higher.
Jenna and I were escorted to the edge of a platform, where we laughed nervously as we were harnessed and double checked by two employees. We were strapped together, sitting back into an invisible chair. An electronic system pulled us over the river, where we hung in the air 144 feet above the river. The team on the platform counted down, but stopped short, feigning a malfunction. I was confused, but not for long because I was too scared to think as Jenna and I dropped toward the water at speeds up to 45 miles per hour, arcing up to 180 degrees.
At this point, the only thing left to complete my North Island adventure was a skydive. I pre-booked a jump, but rain interfered. My friends Rose and Georgie, two English girls I met in town, were relieved. Secretly, I was too. But I knew I couldn’t leave New Zealand without checking this ultimate adventure off my list. The summer I spent there was one of the wettest on record, so finding a day we were all three available and the weather was clear was a challenge. One morning, after a full week of rain, I woke early and too a deep breath when I saw the sun.
I sent Rose and Georgie a text. Today was the day we would jump from a perfectly good airplane.My foot tapped nervously as I drove the three of us to the drop zone, situated a few miles outside of the Taupo town. It was my first trip to a drop zone and the atmosphere didn’t disappoint. Though it was still early, music blared from the speakers and a lively atmosphere surrounded the office. After completing a mound of paperwork and stepping on the scales, there three of us were assigned to load two. We waited nervously until the announcement was made over the loudspeaker. We were suited up, double checked and led to the small bright yellow aircraft by our tandem masters.
The plane slowly climbed and shifted as the doors opened at 12,000 feet. It felt surreal as a few people slid out of the tiny plane. The doors closed again and we climbed to 15,000 feet, where the doors opened again. I was tightly strapped to my tandem master, who gently nudged me to the back on of the plane. Georgie was ahead of me and the last thing I saw was her huge smile for the exit camera, just as she was sucked outside. My legs felt like jelly as we quickly made our way to the open door, legs hanging over the side. The ground below was over a mile away and before I knew it we were tumbling through the air, flipping until we were steadied by my guide. Freefall lasted about a full minute, which gave me enough time to take in the enormity of the experience. Too soon, we were under the canopy, floating toward New Zealand’s majestic North Island.
With so many options for adventure, it’s almost impossible to choose. However, money spent on experiences and memories is far superior to any souvenir that fits into your luggage.